Like a Picture or a Poem: Our Hearts Are On the Desert Floor

This is a photo of a cheerio balanced in a pile of soil. In the background there are blurry buildings, lights, a glimpse of sky.
Image by Andrew Beers

It is the year when everyone asks, What do you want? Now in our twenties, we have just finished school. Our summer sublet in New York has narrow hallways and no air conditioner; our windows face brick. We live downwind from a chocolate shop and have recently learned the joys of dumpster-diving. At night we come back victorious, hands full with bags of oddly-shaped chocolate rejects. My mother is still not speaking to me and my father has been back in Europe since spring. I would feel like an oddly-shaped reject, too, if it weren’t for you. One morning I wake up to find alphabet cheerios organized into words across our tiny kitchen table. ‘You’ ‘+’ ‘Me’ ‘=’ ‘<3’ ‘Right?’ A sideways ‘v’ and two halves of an ‘o’ form a heart. I smile, then scoop the cheerios up to toss in a bowl. Equal rights? I ask, I don’t think my mom could stomach that at all.

You look at me and shrug, then waggle a jar of chocolate chunks towards me. Chocolate milk?

Today I wait in our favorite cafe. It is hot and the air smells like it is burning. Sun streams through the window, stripes of spotlights for dancing particles of dust. My cup of tea rests on the smooth wooden counter, steam swirling to the radio’s beat. In the cup’s plastic top, condensation has pooled like frog eggs, a billion bubbles beside each other. Each one holds a different possibility. I drink some tea and tap my toe impatiently on the stool’s metal ledge. What do you want? Looking down at the plastic top, I see the sun catch the bubbles’ light, illuminating these worlds. The water droplets become iridescent suns and inside them are a thousand million deserts at dusk. From one I find you waving. Ah, that’s where you are. I’d been wondering what was taking you so long. Looking closer, I see our hearts on the desert floor. They have built structures like seesaws, hollow homes, and monkey bar domes. They dance now, in sunlight turned moonlight turned nubivagant sleight of dusk’s hand. Given the weather, I’d suspected they’d gone out to play.

I take your hand to join them and your heart laughs, then calls me by name. Outside my tea is cooling, and New York’s air is still sweaty and hot. I am caught quiet but smiling as you cross the room. You unfold my fingers and kiss them, and I sip on cold tea. We are bubbles and sunbursts and tadpoles of finger-paint art. Our hearts are kindergarten paper fortunes blowing luck into desert wind. Together, we play and build playgrounds. Inside, we are swinging and skipping and sliding down slides.

What do you want?
 When people ask, we throw out the names of jobs like professor or locations like France.

Sometimes I throw in Cafe-hopper, the Gambia, or Wordsmith, but no one seems to laugh. Just tell them you want to be a journalist, you say.
 Only if you say you’re going to hug trees, I respond. Hey, you reply, looking hurt, you call yourself an environmentalist, too.

The truth is, we don’t know how to say we are still trying to define our outlines. Someday we will have careers, but now, like a picture or a poem, what we want to develop is each other.

Someday I definitely want to become a parkour master, I tell you as we sit in the cafe, or the successful planter of blooming ideas.

I remember my father’s garden in Poland, and our joint wonder at watching the names on those plant packages become flowers we held in our hands. Suddenly I miss Krakow so much it’s as if my heart has a stomachache. No more hoola-hooping for either ventricle today. I take a deep breath. I wish I could call my dad, but it is already midnight across the ocean.

You see my face and offer, We could always become professional scouters for the best places to stick ABC gum. You duck your head under the cafe’s table. We can find mentors out there, for sure.

What do you want?

We want to leave the city, find a place to shower outside, and live in a tent. We don’t say this, though, because sometimes we feel selfish that we are modern women. Sometimes we want a smaller life than the one we have been given. We don’t want so many choices or dreams or prestigious degrees. What we want is a typewriter, a bathtub, and hummus we have mashed up ourselves. We want to watch The Land Before Time and move there, too. Yet every day we find ourselves talking about the intersectionality of injustice, gay rights, and the rising sea. We do not talk about my mother.

Instead, The Maldives are sinking, you tell me, and I only learned they existed last year. Damn. The world seems big and broken and obligation rests like jackknives on our throats. We aren’t yet ready to find a profession and we don’t know how to help, although we want to find a way to. Even watching Disney movies can no longer be a reprieve. No wonder everything is fucked, I say, horrified, reaching to turn off the TV. Watching these is what internalized oppression feels like. I flash on my mother’s face as she found us, how her eyes slid into the flat shape of a street curb in winter, a look ugly and cold. Not you. Her words sounded like stomping boots, the pauses between them the space before they strike the ground. Their impact was my shame, sudden and surprising, dropping down my spine like sweat. I imagine her finger again, accusatory and threatening, as if she was trying to push me back into myself. Not. You.

You interrupt me with your laughter, leaning haphazardly off the blue chair, trying to secure the clothesline we pin to the windowsill. I move to steady you, and brush a stray curl from your face. Remember, we are still the lucky ones, you say, now hanging our bras up to dry. In the face of global warming and a New York summer, we’d both agreed to make this heat good for something. I look at you again and nod.

Yes, despite the past and regardless of the future, these are the months when the air tastes like a truffle. The flavors remind me of old vacations: avocado and creme, candied ginger and orange, sea salt and sesame. Each of our kisses has a different name. At night we hold each other in the softest of ways, letting our bodies shape the sheets into nesting embryos or sleeping cats. Yet sometimes the streetlights creep in the side of the window’s shades, leaving splices of our limbs exposed. What do you want? is the question we shield each other from in the dark. At the beginning of our twenties, the biggest truth we have is that we want what we hold at 3 am. We have fought hard for these hours; now we no longer lie like a secret. Books spread out beyond us, we curl into each other like desert foxes, our legs entwined like modern art. Inside us, our hearts jam and drum bongos, happy and off-beat. They remember chili chocolate and good fortunes, holding hands in desert heat. Now they party as we sleep, as if to affirm us: We are grateful for all we have already received.

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